Eliza Granville Gretel and the Dark

ISBN 13: 9780241146460

Gretel and the Dark

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9780241146460: Gretel and the Dark

A captivating and atmospheric historical novel about a young girl in Nazi Germany, a psychoanalyst in fin-de-siècle Vienna, and the powerful mystery that links them together.

Gretel and the Dark explores good and evil, hope and despair, showing how the primal thrills and horrors of the stories we learn as children can illuminate the darkest moments in history, in two rich, intertwining narratives that come together to form one exhilarating, page-turning read. In 1899 Vienna, celebrated psychoanalyst Josef Breuer is about to encounter his strangest case yet: a mysterious, beautiful woman who claims to have no name, no feelings—to be, in fact, a machine. Intrigued, he tries to fathom the roots of her disturbance.

Years later, in Nazi-controlled Germany, Krysta plays alone while her papa works in the menacingly strange infirmary next door. Young, innocent, and fiercely stubborn, she retreats into a world of fairy tales, unable to see the danger closing in around her. When everything changes and the real world becomes as frightening as any of her stories, Krysta finds that her imagination holds powers beyond what she could ever have guessed.

Rich, compelling, and propulsively building to a dizzying final twist, Gretel and the Dark is a testament to the lifesaving power of the imagination and a mesmerizingly original story of redemption.

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About the Author:

Eliza Granville was born in Worcestershire and currently lives in the Welsh Marches.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

It is many years before the Pied Piper comes back for the other children. Though his music has been silenced, still thousands are forced to follow him, young, old, large, small, everyone . . . even the ogres wearing ten-league boots and cracking whips, even their nine-headed dogs. We are the rats in exodus now and the Earth shrinks from the touch of our feet. Spring leaves a bitter taste. All day, rain and people fall; all night, nixies wail from the lakes. The blood-colored bear sniffs at our heels. I keep my eyes on the road, counting white pebbles, fearful of where this last gingerbread trail is leading us.

Has the spell worked? I think so: coils of mist lap at our ankles, rising to mute all sounds, swallowing everyone around us whole. When the moment comes, we run blind, dragging the Shadow behind us, stopping only when my outstretched hand meets the rough bark of pine trunks. One step, two, and we’re inside the enchanted forest, the air threaded with icy witch breaths. The day collapses around us. Phantom sentries swoop from the trees, demanding names, but our teeth guard the answers so they turn away, flapping eastward in search of the cloud-shrouded moon. Roots coil, binding us to the forest floor. We crouch in a silence punctuated by the distant clatter of stags shedding their antlers.

We wake, uneaten. Every trace of mist has been sucked away by the sun. The landscape seems empty. We haven’t come far: I can see where the road runs, but there’s no sign of anything moving along it. It’s quiet until a cuckoo calls from deep within the trees.

“Listen.”

“Kukulka,” he says, shielding his eyes as he searches the topmost branches.

“Kuckuck,” I tell him. He still talks funny. “She’s saying ‘Kuckuck’!”

He gives his usual jerky shrug. “At least we’re free.”

“Only if we keep moving. Come on.”

The Shadow whimpers, but we force it upright and, supporting it between us, move slowly along the edge of the trees until we come to fields where ravens are busy gouging out the eyes of young wheat. Beyond, newly buried potatoes shiver beneath earth ridges. Cabbages swell like lines of green heads. When we kneel to gnaw at their skulls, the leaves stick in our throats.

We carry on walking, feet weighted by the sticky clay, until the Shadow crumples. I pull at its arm. “It’s not safe here. We must go farther. If they notice we’ve gone—” Keep going. We have to keep going. Surely sooner or later kindly dwarves or a softhearted giant’s wife must take pity on us. But fear has become too familiar a companion to act as a spur for long. Besides, we’re carrying the Shadow now. Its head lolls, the wide eyes are empty, and its feet trail behind, making two furrows in the soft mud. It could be the death of us.

“We should go on alone.”

“No,” he pants. “I promised not to leave—”

“I didn’t.”

“Then you go. Save yourself.”

He knows I won’t go on without him. “No good standing here talking,” I snap, hooking my arm under the Shadow’s shoulder and wondering how something thin as a knife blade can be so heavy.

Another rest, this time perched on the mossy elbow of an oak tree, attempting to chew a handful of last year’s acorns. Only the sprouted ones stay down. The Shadow lies where we dropped it, facing the sky, though I notice its eyes are completely white now. Without warning it gives a cry, the loudest noise it’s ever made, followed by a gasp and a long, juddering out-breath. I finish spitting out the last of the acorns. The Shadow isn’t doing its usual twitching and jumping; it doesn’t even move when I push my foot into its chest. After a moment I gather handfuls of oak leaves and cover its face.

He tries to stop me. “Why are you doing that?”

“It’s dead.”

“No!” But I can see the relief as he pulls himself onto his knees to check. “After enduring so much, still we die like dogs . . . pod plotem . . . next to a fence, under a hedge.” He closes the Shadow’s eyes. “Baruch dayan emet.” It must be a prayer: his lips go on moving but no sound emerges.

“But we’re not going to die.” I tug at his clothes. “Shadows never last long. You always knew it was hopeless. Now we can travel faster, just you and me.”

He shakes me off. “The ground here is soft. Help me dig a grave.”

“Won’t. There’s no time. We have to keep going. It’s already past midday.” I watch him hesitate. “Nothing will eat a shadow. There’s no meat on it.” When he doesn’t move, I trudge away, forcing myself not to look back. Eventually he catches up.

The path continues to weave between field and forest. Once, we catch sight of a village but decide it’s still too near the black magician’s stronghold to be safe. Finally, even the sun starts to abandon us, and our progress slows until I know we can drag ourselves no farther. By now the forest has thinned; before us stretches an enormous field with neat rows as far as the eye can see. We’ve pushed deep between the bushy plants before I realize it’s a field of beans.

“What does it matter?” he asks wearily.

“Cecily said you go mad if you fall asleep under flowering beans.”

“No flowers,” he says curtly.

He’s wrong, though. A few of the uppermost buds are already unfurling white petals, ghostly in the twilight, and in the morning it’s obvious we should have pressed on, for hundreds of flowers have opened overnight, dancing like butterflies on the breeze, spreading their perfume on the warming air.

“Let me rest for a bit longer,” he whispers, cheek pressed against the mud, refusing to move, not even noticing a black beetle ponderously climbing over his hand. “No one will find us here.”

His bruises are changing color. Where they were purple-black, now they are tinged with green. When he asks for a story, I remember what Cecily told me about two children who came out of a magic wolf pit. They had green skin, too.

“It was in England,” I tell him, “at harvesttime, a very long time ago. A boy and a girl appeared suddenly, as if by magic, on the edge of the cornfield. Their skin was bright green and they wore strange clothing.” I look down at myself and laugh. “When they spoke, nobody could understand their fairy language. The harvesters took them to the Lord’s house, where they were looked after, but they would eat nothing at all, not a thing, until one day they saw a servant carrying away a bundle of beanstalks. They ate those but never the actual beans.”

“Why didn’t they eat the beans like anyone else?”

“Cecily said the souls of the dead live in the beans. If you ate one you might be eating your mother or your father.”

“That’s plain silly.”

“I’m only telling you what she said. It’s a true story, but if you don’t want me to—”

“No, go on,” he says, and I notice in spite of his superior tone he’s looking uneasily at the bean flowers. “What happened to the green children?”

“After they ate the beanstalks, they grew stronger and learned to speak English. They told the Lord about their beautiful homeland where poverty was unknown and everyone lived forever. The girl said that while playing one day they’d heard the sound of sweet music and followed it across pastureland and into a dark cave—”

“Like your story of the Pied Piper?”

“Yes.” I hesitate, remembering that in Cecily’s story the boy died and the little girl grew up to be an ordinary wife. “I don’t remember the rest.”

He’s silent for a moment, then looks at me. “What are we going to do? Where can we go? Who can we turn to? Nobody has ever helped us before.”

“They said help was coming. They said it was on its way.”

“Do you believe it?”

“Yes. That’s why we must keep walking towards them.” Beneath the bruises, his face is chalk-white. His arm doesn’t look right and he winces whenever he tries to move it. There’s fresh blood at the corners of his mouth. And suddenly I’m so angry I might explode. “I wish I could kill him.” My fists clench so hard my nails dig in. I want to scream and spit and kick things. He continues to look questioningly at me. “I mean the man who started it all. If it hadn’t been for him—”

“Didn’t you hear what everyone was whispering? He’s already dead.” Again, the small shrug. “Anyway, my father said if it hadn’t been him there’d have been someone else just like him.”

“And maybe then it would have been someone else here, not us.”

He smiles and squeezes my hand. “And we would never have met.”

“Yes, we would,” I say fiercely. “Somehow, somewhere—like in the old stories. Still I wish it could have been me that killed him.”

“Too big,” he says weakly. “And too powerful.”

I knuckle my eyes. “Then I wish I’d been even bigger. I would have stepped on him or squashed him like a fly. Or I wish he’d been even smaller. Then I could have knocked him over and cut off his head or stabbed him in the heart.” We sit in silence for a while. I think about all the ways you could kill someone shrunk to Tom Thumb size. “We ought to go now.”

“Let me sleep.”

“Walk now. Sleep later.”

“All right. But first tell me a story—one of your really long ones—about a boy and a girl who kill an ogre.”

I think for a moment. None of my old stories seem bad enough until I realize there are other circumstances in which an ogre really could be killed. Thanks to Hanna, I know where. And I even know when. All of a sudden, I’m excited. “Once upon a time,” I begin, but see immediately I can’t start that way. It isn’t that sort of tale. He’s still holding my hand. I give it a sharp pull. “Get up. From now on I shall only tell you my story while we’re walking. The moment you stop, I shan’t say another word.”


One

he town of Gmunden, with its placid lake surrounded by high mountains, was a peaceful summer retreat until the morning Mathilde observed that a certain General Pappenheim had brutally suppressed a peasant rebellion there in 1626. The name stirred up a hornet’s nest of resentments. Pappenheim was also the family name of that Bertha creature—the young patient Josef had been so preoccupied with. The one he had never stopped talking about, worrying over, at mealtimes, bedtimes, morning, noon, and night, even when his own wife was so heavily pregnant. Why was that? Actually, she had a very good idea why, thank you very much, Doktor Josef Breuer. And she wasn’t the only one who thought along those lines. Ask Sigmund. He’d verify it.

Mathilde simply could not let the subject rest. The fact that almost two decades had passed made not a scrap of difference. Neither did Josef’s protestations. On and on the argument went, growing more accusatory, weighted with increasing bitterness, until he could stand it no longer and returned to Vienna alone. With the exception of the children’s old nurse, and the boy, of course, the house was empty.

At least it was quiet here. Or rather, after so many years, Josef was used to the muted noises from beyond the window. His mind no longer registered the distant rumble of trams or the grind and rattle of horse-drawn vehicles, the street cries, the high-pitched chatter of passing maidservants. Even late-night revelers and their cacophonic renditions of melodies by the recently deceased Strauss were barely noticed.

Within his consulting room, only the somnolent pulse of the ancient clock usually broke the silence that filled the spaces between patients—and none of those would beat a path to his door until the rest of the family returned, marking the official end of his vacation. This morning, hunched over his desk, Josef became aware of another sound, a tremulous beat, a whisper-soft allegrissimo countermelody to the groan of the clock. It seemed so much a part of him that he clutched at his chest, suddenly alarmed. However, it was not, after all, the arrhythmic fluttering of his heart but merely the frantic escape bid of a rag-winged butterfly confused by the glass. That this realization took so long was a measure of how disturbing he’d found the earlier incident.

It had required enormous effort to unlock the girl’s fingers. He’d never before encountered such prehensile determination. The cat was still hiding beneath the bureau. Perhaps it was dead, for during the struggle, Gudrun, shrieking with fury, had seized its head, forcibly yanking it free of the girl’s hands. Clawing empty air as it fell, the animal added its own banshee howl to the din. Benjamin, lurking beyond the door, had immediately bounded into the room. Pandemonium. And yet the girl continued to stare straight ahead, wordless, blank.

What had the animal done to warrant her assault? Plenty of people disliked cats, and some were reputed to have found them terrifying—Napoleon, Meyerbeer, the dissolute Henry III of England—but there were few who, expressionless and without even glancing down, would seize one by the neck and proceed to crush its windpipe.

Josef rose from his desk with a sigh, keeping well back in the shadow of the curtain as he opened the window. After a moment’s hesitation, the butterfly—a Großer Kohlweißling, summer ravager of cabbage patches, against whose progeny Benjamin waged constant war—exited to certain death. He watched it flutter upwards, keeping close to the building as it battled against the breeze. Not, after all, a Cabbage White: the sooty black spots on the forewings were too large, unusually pronounced, even for a female. It was a rare subspecies, perhaps, though it hardly mattered. The dying year had a voracious appetite for such delicate creatures. Today Josef could smell autumn on the air, a mixture of wood smoke and fungus, death and decay. He sensed worms wreaking their transformation in the dark loam beneath the leaf mold. The trees were changing color. A few leaves had fallen. Faced with the prospect of a bleak winter, his mood always veered towards the melancholic, never more so than this year, which marked not only the end of the present century but also the end of love. Mathilde had turned from him. Her moods, this difficult passage marking an end to her fertility, would pass; life would settle down again. But the harsh words, those vile accusations. He tugged angrily at his beard. Things could never be the same between them.

What remained? How could his declining years be faced, emotionally lacking, with affection rationed, touch denied? At least there was the steady acquisition of knowledge to sustain him—suum esse conservare. Thank God for work. And, as if to underline it, this intriguing case had simply fallen into his lap.

Josef returned to his chair and stared at the virgin page, as yet unsullied by whatever agonizing secrets were waiting to be unlocked. The facts would have to be recorded. He wrote a single word, Fräulein, and stopped. He scratched his head and looked about him at the familiar faces of his daily companions—the ancient clock, increasingly dragging its feet over the passing of time; the carved-wood deer’s head mounted with hugely branching six-point antlers, its gaze fixed on each patient, its ears pricked as if eternally eavesdropping; the portrait of his father, Leopold, watching, waiting. For over thirty years Josef had sat at this desk, never once lost for words. He should simply choose a name, any name, and alter it as soon as the girl’s identity was established. But still he hesitated. It was not an easy thing, for to name something established dominion over it. As with an infant, it shaped and molded the namer’s expectations of that which was named. It set apart. It emphasized human aloneness. A pseudonym was different, a mere cloak.

Josef thought back to his first glimpse of the girl in Benjamin’s arms, swaddled in a horse blanket, its coarse folds framing her pale and ...

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